Kashmir’s internet gag has sparked a major exodus of businesses and students

All quiet on the northern front.
All quiet on the northern front.
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Waris Nabi, 24, a postgraduate in computer applications, and his friend Mudasir Ahad, 25, an MBA, have been job hunting in New Delhi for the past fortnight.

Both moved to the Indian capital after losing hope of a sustainable career in their native Kashmir, where an internet gag has crippled businesses. “Before August, I had job offers from many IT companies in the Valley. Now, the prolonged internet shutdown has almost wiped out the sector,” says Nabi, who hails from Bemina in Srinagar.

The duo is among the thousands who have moved out of Kashmir since August last year when the communication blackout was enforced by prime minister Narendra Modi’s government in the wake of Kashmir’s revoked constitutional autonomy. The state has since been reconstituted into the union territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, directly governed from New Delhi.

Though Kashmir is no stranger to internet clampdowns, governments in the past have ensured that lease lines (or private communication channels) and broadband services were uninterrupted. This time, however, it was a complete blackout.

The curbs were partially eased in January, but by then entrepreneurship and careers had been destroyed. “We have 2G internet, but the government has restricted access to a few hundred websites. You can’t apply for jobs,” says Ahad, who belongs to Pattan in Baramulla district. “I think the current situation in Kashmir will linger on.”

This exodus of educated youth, some even to Gulf countries, is indicative of a wrecked economy.

Kashmir has lost some Rs1.78 lakh crore ($25 billion) in economic output in the five months since August 2019, according to an estimate by The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCC&I). This is 11% of the erstwhile state’s nominal gross state domestic product (GSDP) of Rs1.59 lakh crore for 2018-19. If we separate Kashmir Valley from Jammu and Ladakh regions of the former state, the loss is a whopping 20%.

“People from carpet industry, handicrafts, paper mache, tourism, IT and e-commerce have opened makeshift offices in New Delhi, Punjab, Hyderabad, and Kolkata,” says Sheikh Ashiq Hussain, president of KCC&I.

IT checks out

The worst-hit has been Kashmir’s Rs450-500 crore IT industry, which once employed an estimated 25,000 people across the Valley.

“Relocating to other cities in India didn’t benefit us. We had to spend more than we earned,” says Kafeel Ahmad (name changed), who heads an IT firm with more than 150 staff and clients in the US, west Asia, and South Africa. “We had to do it (relocation to New Delhi and Chandigarh) so that our clients retained their faith in us. The communication blackout disrupted our projects, and we couldn’t deliver on our contracts.”

Even though many businesses have regained access to broadband internet after signing an undertaking with the police accepting responsibility for any “misuse,” the relocated IT firms are in no hurry to close their offices outside Kashmir. “The situation in the Valley remains unstable and uncertainty looms,” says Ahmad. “We will continue to use our outside offices as our backup.”

Ahmad’s firm, though, is among the relatively well-off. Many who couldn’t relocate have shut shop. One of them is the business process outsourcing (BPO) firm Aegis. The firm, which launched its Kashmir operations in 2010, staffed nearly 250 and had plans to hire around 700 people before disaster struck.

Touring for tourists

There has also been a mass migration of hoteliers, travel agents, tour operators, and ticketing agents from Kashmir’s Rs65,000 crore tourism industry. The sector, which accounts for 6.8% of its GSDP and employs over two million people, is now struggling.

Outbound tourism had grown exponentially in recent times with over 40,000 Kashmiris going for Hajj every year. Now this, too, has taken a hit. For one, online visa processing is no longer possible under the circumstances, leading tour operators to move out.

Kaiser Sultan is one such travel agent who has set up makeshift offices in Chandigarh and New Delhi. “I had no option. My business dropped to zero. I left in October,” says Sultan. “As of now, I have no plans to go back.”

Nasir Shah, chairman of the Kashmir Tourism Alliance, is currently part of roadshows in cities like Mumbai, New Delhi, and Nagpur to draw tourists to Kashmir. “Efforts haven’t been successful so far. We hope things will look up after March. That is, if the situation stays stable.”

Entrepreneurs turn employees

Lalchowk.com, an online platform dealing in books, was set up in 2017. The startup’s website now no longer exists, thanks to the curbs. Four of its five founders—Sheikh Mohammad Usmaan, Mubashir Bashir, Zubair Zahoor, Haseeb Ashai, and Asim Mehraj—have left the Valley.

Likewise, Fastbeetle, an online “local courier and parcel service company” for local businesses, was established by 28-year-old Samiullah (known only by his first name) in August 2018. It had a customer base of 15,000 in August 2019. Since then, orders have dried up. The startup is in the process of resuming its operations with a staff of just two as against six earlier. “I don’t know about my other colleagues. Maybe they have left Kashmir,” says Samiullah.

Running news portals, too, has become impossible.

The three-year-old freepresskashmir.com had emerged as one of the prominent news portals in the region. It covered everything from breaking news to long-form stories to what its editor, Qazi Zaid, calls “stories from the ground.”

The portal, although accessible online, is no longer functional. The news on its home page is six months old and is a reminder of the fear and anxiety of the days before India revoked Kashmir’s autonomy. “Around 60% of my former staff have now left the Valley and started working for media organisations outside,” says Zaid. He is still figuring out how to revive his portal.

Costly for students

The student community is one of the worst-hit. A significant number of those who fled Kashmir used high-speed internet to prepare for competitive examinations.

Last year, around 25,000 students from J&K appeared in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admissions to undergraduate medical courses. Around 8,000 appeared for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) exam.

Ainal Ayub Wani from Bemina in Srinagar is one such IAS aspirant. He waited until October for the internet to be restored. When nothing happened, he, along with two friends, moved to New Delhi, though at a huge cost to families. Renting an apartment in Noida, they have no immediate plans to return before the examination in May.

Sabia Tahir, 42, was mindful of the adverse situation for students. She decided to emigrate to ensure the continued schooling of her two daughters. She closed her newly established garment shop at Beehama, Ganberbal, in central Kashmir and returned to Dubai in December last year to join her husband Tahir Ismaiel, an IT engineer.

Tahir had quit her job as a teacher early last year at an Indian school in Dubai and returned to the Valley for good. If things had gone well, she was to be followed by her husband. “We have shelved the plans to return now,” says Sabia. “In the existing situation in Kashmir, both our livelihood and the education of our kids are at stake.”